After years of quixotic effort and false starts, a bill that would guarantee Battery Park City residents multiple seats on the board of the agency that governs them, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) has passed the State Senate. An identical bill also passed the State Assembly, and the measure now goes to the desk of Governor Andrew Cuomo, to await his signature or veto.
The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Daniel Squadron, requires that two seats on BPCA’s seven-member board be set aside for people who actually live in Battery Park City. This measure was a compromise that emerged after weeks of behind-the-scenes drama in which multiple other formulations were considered and then discarded. Mr. Squadron’s original language called for four seats, a majority of the BPCA’s board, to be set aside for local residents, but stipulated that they live anywhere in Lower Manhattan as a whole, rather than Battery Park City itself. In this scenario, residents of the community might have found themselves being nominally represented by people who live in Tribeca, the Financial District, or the South Street Seaport. The Senator’s rationale for this version of the bill was that the broader geographic footprint would enhance the bill’s prospects for passage in the Republican-dominated Senate, where a similar bill had been defeated last year.
Demurring from this view was a phalanx of community leaders and at least one concerned resident, Pamit Surana, a management consultant who lives in northern Battery Park City. So urgent did Mr. Surana deem the need for people who live in the community to have a voice on the BPCA’s board that he hired, at his own expense, a professional lobbyist to importune State legislators not only to consider the bill, but also to refine its language to require the appointment of residents of Battery Park City, rather than Lower Manhattan as a whole. He also travelled to Albany multiple times to meet with State Senators and make the case personally that the community needs direct representation on the Authority’s board.
As the end of the legislative session approached in mid-June, the prospects for resident participation on the BPCA board were thrown into turmoil as Governor Andrew Cuomo (who controls the BPCA, by appointing its directors) announced nominees to fill three vacant seats on the Authority’s board. These included one resident of the Financial District (former Community Board 1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes), one attorney who works for a firm based in Battery Park City (Louis Bevilacqua, who is legally a resident of Long Island, but also rents an apartment in Battery Park City), and one designee with no direct ties to the community (real estate developer and philanthropist George Tsunis).
This touched off a frantic series of tense negotiations in which Mr. Squadron’s bill was amended multiple times. One version, apparently drafted at the behest of lobbyists working for one or more large corporations that own commercial property in the neighborhood, said that if Battery Park City residents were to be represented on the Authority’s board, then the owners of commercial real estate in the community should also be guaranteed seats. This version, which would have allocated two seats to residents and two seats to business interests, was vehemently opposed by Mr. Squadron, according to a source close to the Senator, who summarized his position as being, “unwilling to codify voting rights for large corporations, because they already have more than enough ways to make their views known to decision-makers.” The Senator was joined in this opposition by the leadership of Community Board 1 (CB1), who unanimously voiced grave reservations about the prospect of real estate developers having a voice in governing the community.
Instead, Senator Squadron responded with a new version of his bill, which stripped out the proposed language reserving seats on the BPCA board for corporations, but reduced to two seats the number of board positions allocated to local residents, while preserving the clause that called for residents from Lower Manhattan as a whole, rather than Battery Park City. His position appears to have been based on his appraisal that this version of the bill stood the best chance of passage in the Republican-dominated Senate.
At this point, the leadership of Community Board 1 (CB1) began to push back, in the belief that the reduced number of seats should be reserved for people who live within the neighborhood governed by the Authority, rather than coming from surrounding communities. Multiple members of CB1 also voiced a preference that it would be better for the bill to be defeated, rather than legally enshrine a process that invited outsiders to govern the neighborhood.
Senator Squadron then modified his position, in deference to CB1’s leadership, and amended his bill once again. The new language maintained the requirement that two seats on the BPCA’s board be reserved for local residents, but defined them as people who live within Battery Park City, rather than Lower Manhattan as a whole.
By then, the regular session of the legislature was drawing to a close without any form of Mr. Squadron’s bill coming to a vote before the Senate’s committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, a crucial first step before it could be considered by the Senate as a whole. But there was still a chance for it to pass.
The Senate’s procedures allow for bills to be considered after the end of the regular legislative session, if they are sent to the Rules Committee. Senator Squadron pressed for this maneuver, even as the Assembly version of the bill was hurriedly reopened and amended so that its language corresponded to that of the updated Senate measure. (In order for a bill to be considered enacted by both houses of the State legislature, each chamber must ratify identical texts.) As the Assembly once again passed the bill, the Senate’s Rules Committee took up its version.
At the same time, the Governor’s nominees to the BPCA board proceeded toward confirmation by the Senate, which was legally required before they could take office. These two tracks amounted to a collision course, because the final version of Senator Squadron’s bill mandated that two Battery Park City residents be appointed to the Authority’s board before any other candidates, and none of Mr. Cuomo’s three nominees met this criteria. Passage of the bill would have effectively scuttled all three nominations, although the Governor would have had the option of holding off on signing the measure until his nominees had been confirmed. In practical terms, however, Mr. Cuomo would have been politically embarrassed by the appearance of rushing in appointments that would soon become illegal.
The Governor was spared this discomfort by timing that appears to have been calibrated to lock in confirmation of his appointees before the new law could pass the Senate. This sequence may have been a condition of the law’s ratification (i.e., it is possible that the Senate’s Republican leadership had a quiet understanding with Governor Cuomo’s office that they would not consider the bill until his BPCA board appointments had been confirmed), but it quickly became a source of deep frustration for Lower Manhattan community leaders. In the event, the Senate considered Mr. Cuomo’s BPCA nominees first, on Monday (June 20), and began weighing the bill mandating resident representation on the Authority’s board 24 hours later.
During the confirmation debate, Senator Squadron spoke to oppose two of the Governor’s three nominees (he supported the designation of Ms. Hughes), saying, “the Battery Park City Authority, with its seven members, has and will have after this appointment zero residents of Battery Park City on it. It is a basic principle that in local governance you have a local voice, and in Battery Park City, that is sorely lacking. All seven appointees are made by the Governor. Over the last two years, every elected official in the area has written to the Governor to ask for actual Battery Park City residents to be appointed to the board. It is critical when we talk about a local governance body like the BPCA that we have a local voice. The idea that zero out of seven would be residents is simply unacceptable.” All three of Governor Cuomo’s nominees were nonetheless confirmed by the Senate late in the evening of June 20. (While the appointment of three new board members technically means that there are no further vacant seats on the BPCA board, three other, current members are also continuing to serve despite the fact that their terms have expired. This raises at least the possibility that further appointments, governed by the new law requiring two seats for Battery Park City residents, could be made soon.)
The next day (Tuesday, June 21), the Rules Committee approved Mr. Squadron’s bill and reported it out to the full Senate, where it passed unanimously 24 hours later (on Wednesday, June 22). The measure now goes to the desk of Governor Cuomo, who may choose to sign it into law, veto it, or do nothing (which is the functional equivalent of a veto). Under the procedures that regulate how and when a governor may sign or veto a bill from the New York State legislature, Mr. Cuomo may have several months in which to decide the fate of this measure.
The passage of this bill may mark a milestone in the struggle for local representation in the governance of Battery Park City. CB1 began enacting resolutions calling for such a reform in 2006, and Mr. Squadron first introduced legislation mandating such a change in January, 2016. While a succession of governors have intermittently chosen to appoint a single Battery Park City resident to the Authority’s board, this has never been legally required, and there has never been more than one resident on the board. The most recent, Martha Gallo, resigned in April of this year.
Senator Squadron said afterwards, “for years I’ve called on the Governor to nominate residents to the Battery Park City board and tried to block non-resident appointments — an effort that continued as recently as last night. That’s because I believe local community members have a critical perspective in local governance. This bill is a big step toward a BPCA board that reflects the value of local governance. Both chambers of the Legislature have spoken with a clear, bipartisan voice in support of ensuring Battery Park City residents have a say. It’s critical that the Governor sign this legislation and ensure we have residents on the Authority Board.”
Assembly members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou sponsored the bill in their chamber of the legislature. Ms. Glick said, “the residents of Battery Park City deserve to have their voices directly heard by the BPCA. This legislation is a strong first step in ensuring community interests are truly reflected by the BPCA board, which makes decisions that affect the daily lives of Battery Park City residents. It is far overdue that the community has a voice on the board.”
Ms. Niou said, “the Assembly and Senate agree: the BPCA needs more local voices on its board — and it’s critical that the Governor sign into law our bill requiring more resident board members. Local voices bring an important perspective to the governance of our institutions, and we must ensure Battery Park City residents are able to steer the future of the Authority.”
CB1 chair Anthony Notaro said, “over the last two weeks, myself and our Battery Park City committee chair and co-chair — Ninfa Segarra and Tammy Meltzer — along with a very committed resident, Pamit Surana, have worked with Deborah Glick and Senator Squadron to get legislation that truly reflects the wishes of our community. Namely, we have asked for a minimum of two board members to be Battery Park City. The vote on Wednesday evening is the result and we look forward to the Governor signing the bill. But regretfully, it came after three non-Battery Park City residents were appointed to the BPCA board. While they may be fine candidates, the point is that we expected to have BPC residents fill the open positions. We must continue the campaign to have true representation on this board, which oversees our community and its infrastructure.”
Ms. Segarra, co-chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, cautioned that, “the bill is still not enacted. It must be signed by the Governor. And due to the confirmation of three nominees before the bill moved, even if the bill is signed by the Governor, it may be years before a resident will sit on the board. In the meantime, major projects that may substantially change the character of our community, like the Wagner Park redesign, are being considered by BPCA.”
Mr. Surana, the resident who hired the lobbyist (a move that appears to have proved crucial in shepherding the bill toward passage), was unavailable for comment.
Tom Goodkind, a member of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “I greatly hope that Governor Cuomo signs Senator Squadron’s hard-won legislation and chooses local, long-term Battery Park City residents to fill open Authority seats. If this does not occur, and we should give a clear deadline, I believe it’s time to become a part of New York City, and be represented by our local elected officials more properly.”
Jeff Mihok, who also serves on CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “we’ve been saying for nearly a decade that we need local representation. None of the three newly confirmed BPCA board members is a resident of our community. Taxation without representation is still tyranny. I’m continually amazed that our simple and reasonable demand that a majority of the seven BPCA Board members be from our community falls on deaf ears with the Cuomo administration. To add insult to injury, at least one of the new members is not even a New York City resident. Also, once again, every member is either a corporate lawyer or a person with ties to corporate life. How about an architect, a nurse, a small business owner, a teacher, a doctor? This situation is unacceptable.”
Robin Forst, a public member of CB1 who is also a former vice president of the BPCA, said, “while the passage of this legislation should be cause for celebration among Battery Park City residents, it is, sadly, only a hollow victory. Despite years of effort by this community to ensure that the voices of Battery Park City residents are represented on the BPCA board, this legislation was passed only after three existing Board openings were filled with non-residents. This process has been a big disappointment. The opportunity to appoint residents — assuming the Governor signs this bill — has been lost, at least for now. This legislation will have absolutely no impact unless a board member steps down. It looks like business as usual in Albany and, unfortunately, in Battery Park City as well.”
Justine Cuccia, a public member of CB1 who is also one of the founders of Democracy for Battery Park City, the grassroots organization that has collected more than 2,500 petition signatures and has lobbied for years to have local residents appointed to the BPCA board, said, “if this were the end of the process, getting only two seats on the Authority’s board would be a failure. But because this is actually the beginning, it is a success. Everybody who worked to make this happen has helped to lay a foundation that we can continue to build upon. Working together, and with our elected officials, we must keep the pressure on the Governor to sign the bill into law, or we are back to square one.” Ms. Cuccia added that “Democracy4BPC.org will also be holding a rally in the next few weeks, so be on the lookout for more information about how you can participate. While the BPCA board is now full — and made up of non-residents — we must look to the future and continue to lay the groundwork for democracy in our community. And this bill, now sitting on the Governor’s desk, is our first concrete step forward.”
(Editor’s Note: Ms. Cuccia is related to the reporter who wrote this story.)